I HAVE written so many columns and a book debunking the US narrative on the South China Sea (SCS) disputes — swallowed hook, line, and sinker by our elite as well as by the administrations of Aquino 3rd and even implicitly Marcos Jr. The crux of this narrative is that China is an expansionist power and intends to occupy all of the waters and features of the SCS.
This view is simplistic and contains factual errors, and upon close scrutiny, is merely intended to advance the American propaganda line of China as the new Evil Empire — with the hidden assumption that the US must continue as the hegemon in Asia to counter it. Note that in this false account, Vietnam as a militant claimant, which had occupied the most number of features and which in 1994 grabbed an islet we had occupied, is only rarely mentioned in the US accounts as this weakens the narrative China as an evil empire.
Another even more important reason to debunk this US view is that it doesn’t point to any solution to the disputes, except through an armed conflict between the US and China. I think this is what some American strategists really want, in order to prevent China’s rise as the superpower in the region.
At this period though, because China has built up its artificial-islands which can have military facilities and weapons overnight in the Spratlys — provoked by the suit the Aquino 3rd government brought against it in 2012 — and because the US has been given military bases in nine facilities throughout the country, the Philippines will be the most devastated — not the US 9,000 kilometers away at the other side of the globe — as it will be first target of Chinese missiles.
That US view of China as an expansionist power, translates to the mentality espoused by Aquino 3rd in his slogan “what-is-ours-is-ours” and by Marcos Jr.’s “we-will-not give-up-an inch.” That precludes any compromise solution not only to our disputes with China, but with Vietnam, Taiwan and Malaysia.
But we have to face reality: At this time it has become moot and academic today to argue which country has the legitimate sovereignty over the islands and reefs in the SCS.
It is totally naïve and delusional to ask the United Nations to kick out China from the islands it occupies. A nuclear war will inarguably break out that would make our species extinct if the US and all its allies force China out of the seven reefs it has transformed from 2012-2014 into artificial-island fortresses. Even the Vietnamese will fiercely fight for the 30 features it now occupies — 13 of which had been transformed into artificial islands — with the same level of ferocity they demonstrated in kicking out the French and the Americans to gain independence (cf.: My columns May 22 and 23, 2023: “Vietnam’s militarization of the Spratlys” and “Vietnam: The more serious threat?”)
I was pleasantly surprised that this is also the view in a 2022 book on the South China Sea entitled On Dangerous Ground: America’s Century in the South China Sea. Very significant is the fact that its author is Gregory Poling, who is an unabashed apologist for US hegemonism and exceptionalism, as even indicated in the book’s subtitle. Poling is one of the US leading experts and propagandists on the SCS dispute, and heads the Asia Maritime Transparency Institute (AMTI) set up in 2012 to provide propaganda support for the suit that the Philippines filed against China. A unit of the Washington, D.C.-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, the AMTI has become America’s main propaganda venue on the SCS disputes.
Poling in his On Dangerous Ground book says:
“The most likely endgame in the Spratlys is recognition of the current status quo. Southwest Cay* is the only island to ever change hands between two of the modern claimants. In all other cases, the one who got there first (excepting Japan and France, which publicly ceded or quietly abandoned their claims, respectively) is still within control. Scarborough is best left unoccupied, as it has always been, with a cooperative management scheme for traditional fishing.”
(*The Philippines since 1971 occupied Southwest Cay, Pugad Island to us, until the Vietnamese were able to take it over in 1975 by fooling the troops there to leave for a party in a nearby island, to return the next morning facing Vietnam guns trained on them on their landing boats.)
This is the same view I had much earlier expounded in my book Debacle: The Aquino regime’s Scarborough fiasco and the South China Sea arbitration deception. As I wrote in that book’s “Conclusion” chapter:
“As a US Navy think-tank* concluded after a lengthy study of the disputes: ‘The reality on the ground is that China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines all permanently occupy features in the Spratly group; some have done so for over 50 years.” These countries may well claim that the length of such occupation strengthens their sovereignty claims, as effective occupation (effectivités) is viewed in international law as one means of acquiring sovereignty over a particular territory. (*Roach, J. Ashley, “Malaysia and Brunei: An Analysis of their Claims in the South China Sea,” August 2014, CNA Analysis and Solutions, page iii.)
The implication in such conclusions is that since there is absolutely no way for the main claimants (China, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines) to be kicked out of the features they presently occupy — other than through a totally useless war — then the first step to peace and cooperation in the SCS is for the claimants to stop claiming “what is ours and ours,” and to formally declare that they are recognizing the sovereignty over SCS features of countries which have occupied these.
In our case, we can even bargain for China to recognize our sovereignty over Scarborough Shoal as a condition for our acceptance of its claim over the features it presently occupies.
Such recognition of course will require a citizenry informed of the history of the SCS disputes, and not believing in the US propaganda line that China, and Vietnam, are “bullies” which grabbed Philippine properties in the SCS.
Such declarations by the claimant countries would be such a tremendous move towards building up goodwill among them, so that the other disputes can be resolved. Among the most important of these are agreements through negotiations where, along the guidelines of the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea, the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of one country ends and where that of the other begins.
We have had such official or informal agreements with Indonesia and Taiwan on such EEZ delimitations. It can be done in the SCS as long as each claimant recognizes the sovereignty of the presently-occupying countries. After that, agreements could be reached on setting up such mechanisms as joint exploration for hydrocarbons, ensuring the freedom of fishermen from these countries to fish in their “traditional” areas while preventing overfishing and protecting endangered species.
We are not disadvantaged in giving up our claims to SCS features we do not occupy: We occupy 10 features, four of which are islands and not mere reefs and shoals. We occupy the second biggest island (Pag-asa), third (Likas) and the fifth (Parola).
Nearly all scholars agree that we have the weakest claim in the Spratlys as these were made by Marcos only in 1978 through a presidential decree that alleged these were not owned by any other country — a fallacy as Vietnam and China had many decades, even a thousand years earlier, had clearly put these areas under their sovereignty.
Most scholars say Vietnam has the strongest claim as its colonizer France indisputably put the Spratlys under its sovereignty, and then transferred this to the Vietnamese when it gave up its rule over that country. Because of this, Vietnam has been the most militant in occupying features in the Spratly, and at present holds 30 of these, although only a few are islands with the rest either submerged reefs or barely above water.
China actually had the least number of holdings in the Spratlys, as it was late in enforcing its alleged sovereignty as the county had been poor after World War 2 and then plunged into chaos by Mao’s “Red Guard” uprising called the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution that ended in 1976, with its reforms led by Deng Xiaoping taking a decade to bear fruit. China occupied no islands at all, only reefs, until, provoked by the Philippines’ 2012 arbitration suit that threatened to even declare those as illegally occupied, it transformed these into artificial islands complete with airports, bays and all the facilities a military force needs.
Deng Xiaoping, China’s most revered leader after Mao, was right when he said decades ago that we have to “set aside disputes and pursue joint development” in contested areas, and that “the next generation will have more wisdom” to solve these problems.
This is really our only workable option, the other having as an adversary the rising superpower in Asia, China. We have to be realistic and etch in our minds the ancient Greek historian Thucydides’ timeless insight: “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”
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